Dr. Dominik Hierlemann
6. December 2019

A #Conference for all #citizens

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has announced a two-year Conference on the Future of Europe. Even citizens ought to participate. But how? What is to be achieved, which topics are to be worked on? The concrete mandate for the conference is still unclear. European federalists are hoping to gain momentum for treaty change. Many member states are afraid of that very outcome. There seems to be agreement that the public should play a more important role in the discussions than has been the case in the past. With populism flaring up, growing scepticism towards elites, and perceived gaps in representation on the part of the EU population, this is urgently needed.

Indeed, participatory democracy is the talk of the town. Citizens’ participation is being tested out far more commonly across Europe, both in pilot experiments and on a larger scale. The EU, too, has taken initial steps in this direction. Still, there is often a gap between expectations and reality. For instance, there is barely any public awareness of the European Citizens’ Initiative. The European Citizens’ Consultations initiated by the French President in 2018 were at best a well-coordinated attempt at dialogue in all member states, without generating a lot of tangible results.

The EU, seemingly so remote from its citizens, could become a pioneer of innovative participation. At the same time, when done poorly, citizens’ participation damages European democracy. Citizens’ participation in the Conference on the Future of Europe must be carefully designed and smartly choreographed. It should not simply be a communication exercise, but should herald a change in the culture of the EU institutions

The idea for the conference in a European context

According to Ursula von der Leyen, the “Conference on the Future of Europe” should bring together – as equal partners – individual citizens (especially young Europeans), civil society and European institutions. The Commission intends to take account of the results of the conference in its work, including the proposition of relevant legislative action. Even treaty change could be a possibility.

The proposals for such a conference did not come out of nowhere. In Brussels, the taboo phrase “treaty change” can now be heard again more often. After the failed constitutional referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005, as well as the subsequent difficult process of creating the Lisbon treaty, treaty fatigue prevailed for more than a decade. Still, the complete lack of enthusiasm for further institutional development has given way to a cautious openness to possible treaty change.

The composition of the new Commission underlines the importance of the issue of democracy for the EU institutions. No less than three Commissioners are responsible for it. As Vice President for democracy and demography, Dubravka Šuica is also charged with arranging the Conference on the Future of Europe. Long-standing Commission member Maroš Šefčovič is now responsible for inter-institutional relations and foresight. Vice President Věra Jourová will take charge of values and transparency and lead the group of three Commissioners on a “New Push for European Democracy”.

Resolving three key questions

The format, aims and timeframe of the Conference on the Future of Europe will be defined by an inter-institutional agreement between Parliament, Commission and Council.

Three key questions have to be clarified in advance: Firstly, what are the aims of the conference and what is its mandate?

A narrow mandate would mean that not only the format and the timeframe but also the structure of possible outcomes will be clearly identified and pre-defined. A broader mandate would leave the conference and its organizers with more scope when it comes to planning and would leave open how the two-year dynamic develops. Whether or not the process leads to a European Convention and possible treaty change would then remain to be seen.

The second key question relates to the themes of the conference. It would be possible to focus primarily on institutional issues and on the question of EU democracy. Transnational lists for European elections and the troublesome question of Spitzenkandidaten would then be the beginning of a discussion about how citizens can be more involved in EU policies, and how they can take on a more innovative and direct role. An alternative approach would be one which does take up the institutional hot topics currently on the table, but which does not restrict itself to solving these conflicts alone. All strategic policy questions, such as climate-change, economic and social models, the currency union as well as security and defence, would be up for discussion.

Thirdly, the manner and extent to which the public would be directly involved in the conference still remains completely open.

If it goes beyond a discussion forum of organized civil society groups, this element could be a real innovation. There could also be specific formats encouraging participation of young people. The European Parliament is committed to the broadest and most representative participation by the public possible in the conference. The parliament building itself could be used as a conference venue, which would have symbolic implications.

What role for citizens: source of ideas or decisionmakers?

The involvement of citizens in the EU Future Conference must take into account central quality principles of participatory democracy.

In conceptualizing the process, it helps to look at research. As early as 1969, Sherry R. Arnstein developed the “ladder of participation”. The basic idea is simple. The intensity of participation can be higher or lower. The higher we climb the ladder, the more involved citizens are, the more they have power over decisions or can even implement them. Information, dialogue, consultation, a stake in decisionmaking, decision implementation — in essence, these are the steps on the participation ladder.

We do not yet know how the results of the Conference on the Future of Europe will ultimately flow into policy or even be implemented. That is realistic and legitimate. Citizens’ participation is a different question. Regardless of how the final format of participation will look like, the participants want to know what part their work will play in further discussions. Are citizens being consulted or are they directly involved in deciding the conference’s results? That is the core question which must be raised before beginning to plan the conference.

Randomly selected citizens: how to avoid the “usual suspects”

A procedure that has recently been applied in more and more countries could be exciting for the EU. So-called Citizens’ Assemblies, which involve randomly and as representatively as possible invited citizens, were prominent in Ireland and also in France during the Grand Débat. The EU also conducted a citizens’ panel with more than one hundred randomly selected Europeans, during the European Citizens’ Consultations of 2018.

Weighted random selection offers a number of advantages: in principle, every citizen has the chance to be chosen. The group of participants is composed to represent the diversity of society — usually, this means ensuring that women and men are equally represented, as well as various age groups and diverse socio-economic backgrounds. This prevents events that only cater to the politically interested. Citizens with quite diverse experiences, interests, opinions and perspectives take part. In the EU, this approach has a particular attraction.

A transnational Citzens’ Assembly with citizens from all EU Member States would be a real innovation. It would have the appeal of the new and could be an exciting extension for the Future Conference (more on this in our current Policy Brief “Conference Talk”).

More online participation for a European public

In addition to physical participation, people must be able to participate virtually, in order to involve a broad European public in the conference. The French Grand Débat exemplifies the interplay between online and offline spaces and points to a number of challenges. Town hall meetings with President Macron drew great public attention to the website of the Grand Débat. Citizens could upload their opinions and suggestions on the central issues of the debate.

However, participants could not interact with each other. The deliberative component – joint discussion and reflection – was reserved for the regional Citizens’ Assemblies, with randomly selected participants.

A virtual discussion in which several million people take part across the EU, combined with the physical involvement of citizens, would have the potential for a snowball effect, setting off further debates

Legitimacy and impact rather than “democracy washing”

Direct participation of European citizens in an EU conference is unchartered territory – and therefore both an opportunity and a risk.

An opportunity, because the EU can finally breathe life into the slogan of a “Europe for Citizens”. Done well, citizens’ participation increases people’s trust in politics, political concepts are improved and are accepted by more people.

A risk, because a broad public is watching the process and it is important to avoid giving the impression that the citizens are being misused for political purposes. Citizens’ participation is not purely an exercise in communication, but it should herald a more systematic cultural change in European politics and the EU institutions. The Conference on the Future of Europe is a start, but first it has to succeed.


Picture: © Sikov – stock.adobe.com


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